UK government invests £60m in rocket engine development

Reaction Engines has received £60m in government funding to continue the development of its SABRE rocket engine, a technology expected to lead to fully reusable single-stage space launchers.

Identified as a high priority project by the treasury in June 2013, SABRE (Synergistic Air Breathing Rocket Engine) will significantly reduce the cost of accessing space by greatly reducing the amount of onboard oxidizer required for propulsion.

Instead, the engine is designed to extract the oxygen it needs for low atmosphere flight from air. Reaching Mach 5 at 26,000 feet, a SABRE engine could then switch to full rocket mode to reach orbit, using on-board fuel supplies.

This advantage would enable a vehicle using SABRE engines to fly lighter from the outset and to make a single leap to orbit, rather than using and dumping propellant stages on the ascent.

This would pave the way for a new generation of spaceplanes which would be lighter, reusable and able to take off and launch from conventional airport runways. Formed in 1989, Reaction Engines’ concept for an 84m-long, unpiloted vehicle called Skylon would be one such spaceplane.

In a statement company founder Alan Bond said, ‘Thanks to the government’s support, Reaction Engines Ltd – a private company, and a great example of British enterprise – will now be able move to the next phase in the development of its engine and heat management technology…Our proven revolutionary technology is the result of two decades of hard work and has the potential to change the world just as the jet engine did.’

The £60m invested by government through the UK Space Agency is expected to help in attracting the remainder of the investment capital needed for full engine development. It will be staged over two years, with £35m in 2014/2015 and £25m in 2015/2016. The commercial investment will look to capture several times the initial investment as part of a three-to-five year programme.

A prototype SABRE is expected by 2017, and flight tests for the engine around 2020.

Four year plan

The government’s investment will be spent on four major elements of the SABRE engine development each of which is critical to realising the full production engine design at the end of the project:

  • the heart of the investment will be the SABRE engine technical design work
  • Improving the lightweight heat exchanger technology and manufacturing capability
  • wind tunnel and flight testing of SABRE engine components
  • and a significant part of the programme will be a ground demonstration of the engine